The subject is as cheery as he is serious. He speaks about his podcast, RISK! with the fervor of a pastor preaching to his congregation. He is seemingly excited about everything, from talking about his childhood to describing the process by which he picks stories for his weekly show. He’s not without melancholy, as he recounts the difficulty of hiding his sexuality during his youth. However, he’s not afraid to laugh heartily, even at his own jokes, belying a childlike wonder with which the patient sees the world. It was thoroughly a pleasure to examine the patient, even when he took on difficult subjects. If you’re a fan of joy and enthusiasm, you will really enjoy my time with Kevin Allison.
You were in legendary sketch group The State. Do you think a reunion is in the foreseeable future?
Yeah! Actually, we are reuniting October 25. We’re putting on a show at Jack Black’s Festival Supreme in Los Angeles (ed. They did reunite, here’s proof).
Is there anybody from the group you’re most, or least, excited to work with again?
[Laughs] We’re kind of like a big ol’ family, which is to say, whenever we’re back in the same room together again, joking around that we do and all of that… it’s like when you see people you haven’t seen in a long time, you go right back into the last conversation you were having. So we all love each other, and we all get on each other’s nerves, and we all rib each other.
I’m just thrilled that we’re all going to be in the same room. It’s very rare, ever since the group broke up in 1996, to get all of us in the same space, because we’re all so busy with our own projects now. But when we do, whether it’s just socially or actually doing a show, there’s something really magical about it. There’s just always been a fantastic chemistry to the whole group.
Before you created RISK!, your podcast, you worked as a solo sketch performer for many years. What made you start a podcast from that?
I was really struggling for many years, just getting up on stage playing kooky characters. I was trying to do work akin to, say, Kaufman or Whoopi Goldberg’s original Broadway show, where she plays like, five different characters. That was the sort of thing that I was going for. And I loved it, and it was really fun, and I think I did some great work, but it just wasn’t connecting. It wasn’t connecting with the audience and really feeling like I was moving somewhere with it. So right at the beginning of 2009, I did a show in San Francisco, a solo show of five different characters, and afterwards I ran into Michael Ian Black, who had seen the show. He’s another member of The State. And I said, “What did you think of the show?”
And he said, “I think everyone in the audience wanted you to drop the act and start talking like yourself.” And I said, “Oh god, I know that’s good advice, but I feel like it’s so risky because there are parts of my personality that I think are contradictory and not as easy to ‘get’ as a simple sketch comedy character.” It just felt too risky. And he said, “If something feels risky, it’s probably right on the money, then! It’s following the fear.” If it’s risky, it’s probably because it’s juicy, and you’re opening up, and the audience will start opening up to you more. So the next week I did try telling a true story on stage, for the first time, and it was really magical. It was a tremendous difference in what I was seeing in the audience’s eyes, and the way I felt like I was more in conversation with the audience, rather than just reciting lines and doing monologues. I really just lit up, and I realized, “Oh, this really is special.”
And the reason I created a podcast was initially because I thought I’ve got to force myself to start doing this on a really regular basis, and I desperately need deadlines, or I don’t get work done. If I had a weekly deadline to be putting something out there, A) I would get the work done, and B) people would be able to access it! I just thought it was a perfect solution. I would say that RISK! has, from day one, had momentum behind it. It was one of those things that just felt like, the wind filled its sails right away when people heard the idea. And now it gets 800,000 downloads per month, so it continues year by year to become a little bit more popular.
On your show, guests open up to the audience about real, embarrassing stories about themselves. In real life, are you a very open person among your friends and family, or is it just when you’re on the podcast?
I’ve always been someone who is extroverted and shares to an extent that makes some people uncomfortable, especially when I’m dating, I have to remind myself, “Hold back a little bit, you don’t have to tell him everything on day one.” So yeah, I am someone who is very candid. I associate it all with growing up. When I was a little kid, I was extremely aware from the very beginning that I was gay. As a child, I knew that I was sexually attracted to boys. Even when I was about five years old, I had the language for it too. I knew what the word “gay” and “fag” and those sorts of things meant. So I grew up terrified, because it was not okay to be that, especially in the early seventies in conservative Cincinnati, Ohio. So I was in the closet all throughout my childhood, and I think that that really scarred me, to a bit of an extent, and it made me feel like, “Oh my gosh, I don’t want to hide things from people.” So in my adulthood, I feel like I’ve kind of continued to rebel based on this old childhood feeling of, “I’m not going to hide anything, I’m going to share, share, share.”
Do you think it was harder to come out as a comedy writer or as a gay man to your parents?
[Laughs] Well, it’s funny, because my parents have always been supportive of me pursuing my dreams, as far as being a performer. Actually, my parents are quite thrilled that I teach storytelling, because they can understand the value in that, that it’s a gift that I’m able to share with people. They don’t listen to RISK!, for one thing because they’re not very internet savvy, like they can’t figure out how to turn the computer on, but also they are aware that RISK! is kind of R-rated, and that sort of thing. I’ve shared some stories with them, just isolated, because I know it won’t offend their sensibilities. It’s really interesting-you never know what might offend some people, and the premise behind RISK! is that people tell true stories they never thought they’d share in public. We really do say nothing is inappropriate. So people have shared stories on the show.
Some are hilarious; in fact, many are funny. We have a lot of comedians who do the show. But some are just shocking. Some are really emotionally wrenching. Others might be a little bit scary, or contain controversial points of view. My feeling is that people should just be able to say whatever they want. And so, sometimes people will say, “You should have trigger warnings at the beginning of the episode.” I say, well, you should pretty much consider the entire series to have a trigger warning on it. The premise of the show is, “Who knows what might happen next?” Just like life, it might shock you.
Do you screen the stories, or are you just as surprised as the audience to hear how each story goes?
So I ask for story pitches, and people will describe their story in an email. And if it’s interesting, then I’ll ask them to make a ten or fifteen minute recording of them taking an improvised first stab at it, kind of a rough draft. I’ll listen to that, and then I’ll see whether or not I still want to work on that story. And if I do, I’ll give that person a lot of notes, almost like a therapist would. What I start doing at that point is asking a lot of how and why questions, asking for a person to dig a little deeper into their memories, so that’s one of the most fascinating parts of the process, working with people, helping them remember things more fully, and helping them to kind of recreate these moments in their lives in more cinematic ways.
Have your parents ever seen The State?
My parents have definitely seen The State, and there were indeed some sketches that were a little bit too sexual, or we would make jokes about religion, like Jesus and stuff, and that might have thrown them a little bit. But overall, they were happy with the series and proud of it.
Growing up, were there any signs you’d become a comedian and performer?
Yes. I kind of became a class clown when I was in kindergarten. I realized, “Oh, I can make people laugh!” It’s interesting. I think that an issue of control in being able to make people laugh. Part of it is that a lot of comedians have a lot of insecurities, and so, I think comedians assume, “Everyone’s laughing at me anyway, but if I’m a comedian and I’m making jokes, I can control how and why they’re laughing.” When I was a kid, I would use that to get attention. Because I always knew, “Oh gosh, I’m not going to be the handsome kid or the jock, but I could get people to like me by making jokes.” Also, it related back to the whole “being in the closet” thing; I felt like my sexuality was very weird, but I had to keep it hidden. Making jokes was a way, especially because my humor is so absurdist, to express this weirdness in me, but it’s okay, I’m still likeable.
How has comedy affected your mental health?
Y’know, it’s really interesting. The comedy community is kind of a funky bunch.I would say that one of the things that storytelling has provided for me, especially RISK!, is a show where it’s okay to admit that you’re insecure in this way or that way, and it’s also okay in a RISK! story to not be funny. It’s okay to just let whatever you have to say be what it is, without “Oh, I need to get a laugh here,” or, “I need to control the audience’s perception of me here.” I love comedy very dearly, but the thing about storytelling that’s kind of a relief is that it’s a place where you can be funny whenever you want, and then you can also let go of that.
As the host, people expect me to be funny. But because of what RISK! is, when I go into a stretch of a story that’s not funny at all, they’re still very receptive and welcome to that. So I love that about it, that I’ve found some real freedom in RISK!, in that it’s okay to be funny when you want, and it’s okay not to be funny when you want. Somehow, that makes being funny even more refreshing than it does in the context where it’s like, “Be funny all the time.”